The Rise and Fall of Nations

Posted January 2, 2007

Categories: Articles

At the beginning of Chinese filmmaker Jiang Yimou’s popular movie Hero , a martial arts master arrives at the court of the powerful Xin ruler. The master swordsman, an orphan who goes by the moniker Nameless, harbors a secret desire to assassinate the king on behalf of his own wronged territory, the nation of Zhao. It is the era of the Six Kingdoms more than 2,000 years ago. The king of Xin proposes to defeat the warring factions and unite the country. Only Nameless, it seems, can stop him.

At the last moment, however, Nameless decides not to go through with his plot. He realizes that the destiny of the king of Xin is to unite the kingdoms and create a great empire. Nameless earns the title “hero” by sacrificing himself rather than strangling the new empire in its cradle. As the last credits roll, we learn that the king of Xin went on to become China’s first emperor—Xin Shihuangdi—and to build the Great Wall that protected the new nation from its enemies. He also unified the Chinese script, currency, and measures. Not mentioned in Hero was Xin Shihuangdi’s order to burn all books in the realm and his burial alive of over 1,000 scholars. The great omelet of China, it seems, required the breaking of more than a few eggs.

Hero departs in several interesting ways from the history on which it is loosely based. The most famous assassin of Zhao, Jing Ke, did in fact manage to get within striking distance of the Xin emperor. Rather than pausing to consider the glittering potential of a united China, Jing Ke lunged at the king. Quite unintentionally, he missed. After an almost comic tussle in the audience hall, the future emperor of China stabbed his assassin to death.

An incompetent assassin does not qualify as heroic. With China set to resume its previous role as a world power, the movie Hero alters the tale to send a stirring message to the Chinese: it is worth making sacrifices on behalf of the greater glory of your nation. The individual, the family, even the region should not stand in the way of China’s inevitable rise to preeminence. The Hong Kong action component—given greater authenticity by Hong Kong actors Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung—gives the film’s message a “greater China” spin. Whatever fears such a message might strike in Taiwanese hearts did not prevent Hero from being the island’s second highest grossing film in 2004 after Matrix Reloaded.

This week, in the latest round of China Focus articles, FPIF contributor Paul Foster analyzes the relationship between Chinese nationalism and Kung Fu movies. The international success of Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and other movies strengthens “the popular image of an ascendant Chinese nation and enhances China’s sense of cultural worth,” Foster writes. “The kind of movies China has successfully sold to the world also reflects a certain set of Chinese values. Through these new Kung Fu movies, China emerges as dynamic, fast-paced, and disciplined, as well as Confucian in its devotion to a strict moral order. The movies also suggest a China that is not subservient to the West but somehow superior—capable of being a strong nation, a multiethnic empire, and an internationally dominant player.”

Things Fall Apart

As China continues to expand its global influence, the world watches as two other nations continue to fragment.

It might seem as though Yugoslavia couldn’t divide any further. All six of the republics of the former “kingdom of the South Slavs” have become independent nations, with tiny Montenegro declaring its independence last June.

But there is at least one piece that still wants out of the puzzle: Kosovo. Still nominally part of Serbia, the Albanian-majority province has been in a decade-long power struggle with Belgrade. The war in Kosovo in 1999 ended in a stalemate, and the UN has been the administering authority ever since. Now, UN Special Envoy Matti Ahtisaari has come up with a plan that might satisfy the demands of both Serbs and Albanians.

Like most compromises, however, it has produced grumbles on both sides. As FPIF contributor Fred Abrahams reports in Kosovo’s Tricky Waltz, “For Kosovo Albanians, the plan is a step toward independence, and the Prishtina leadership took great pains to present it as such. But like a child who hoped for a bike on Christmas and got a sweater, the Albanian reaction was muted, with no flag-waving parades. The plan gives Kosovo an army, an intelligence service, a new flag, and the right to join the World Bank and IMF. But the international authorities that have run the province since 1999 will remain, with the European Union (EU) replacing the UN.” In Belgrade, meanwhile, politicians view independence for Kosovo as the kiss of death, at least for their careers.

Iraq is the other great multiethnic country that threatens to fracture into different pieces. While the Bush administration originally blamed all of the country’s post-invasion ills on outsiders (al-Qaida, Iran) and malcontents from the previous regime, it has become increasingly difficult for Washington to ignore the internecine conflicts, particularly between the current Iraqi government and its variegated opposition.

The same mass media that misreported the lead-up to the Iraq invasion are making some of the same mistakes when covering today’s conflicts within Iraq, confusing domestic factions for outside manipulators and thus downplaying the considerable centrifugal forces within the country. As FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan argues in The Najaf Massacre: Annotated, The New York Times made a hash of its reporting on a battle in Najaf at the end of January. The implications, for Iraq and even more so for Iran, are not hopeful.

War and Environment

War is self-defeating not only metaphorically—how many times has poor Pyrrhus been invoked since he won/lost his battles in the 3rd century BC?—but literally as well. Soldiers die as a result of “friendly fire,” and weapon systems like the V-22 Osprey helicopter are more of a threat to their passengers than their targets.

As FPIF contributor Dan Smith points out in The Self-Defeating Logic of War, the most expensive aircraft of all time, the F-22, can’t perform its surveillance function over Iraq. Electronic interference from U.S. operations on the ground designed to prevent the remote detonations of roadside bombs scrambles the F-22’s sophisticated systems. Best not to deploy such self-defeating weapons, Smith argues: “What we could use now are weapons that self-destruct before they are used, like the F-22 if it is effectively mothballed, followed by weapons that self-destruct in the computer design stage before they are built.”

Which brings us back to China. On the topic of self-destruction, there is perhaps no more poignant example than China’s industrial policy. Although the economy is growing by 10% a year, China is literally destroying itself in the process.

As Jennifer Turner and Juli Kim point out in China’s Filthiest Export, China’s self-destructive policies also have a direct impact on the rest of the world. “Some U.S. researchers believe at least one-third of California’s fine particulate pollution—known as aerosol—originates from Asia,” they wrote. “These pollutants could potentially nullify California’s progress in meeting stricter Clean Air Act requirements.” China’s water pollution threatens the Mekong river countries, and China’s stricter domestic laws on deforestation have prompted Chinese timber industries to cut down trees in other countries’ forests.

In Chinese Kung Fu movies, the heroes sometimes fight on top of trees and bamboo groves. It’s a lovely image. But when will there be a Chinese movie called Hero about a martial arts expert who saves not the king but the country’s forests?

FPIF, February 13, 2007

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